This research has been commissioned by the Building Change Trust. It forms part of the Trust’s ‘Creative Space for Civic Thinking’ work which aims to promote and support the role of the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector in Northern Ireland in enabling meaningful participation and influence by citizens and communities in the decisions that affect their lives. 

In recent years the Trust has invested in experimenting with innovative civic engagement methods and tools through its Civic Activism Programme; it has brought together a coalition of VCSE organisations and broader civil society to campaign for better government through establishing and resourcing the NI Open Government Network; and it has researched and fostered dialogue around the crucial issue of the independence of the VCSE sector.

For this work to progress and be sustained beyond the end of the Trust in 2018, however, it must be considered within the context of the broader health of Northern Ireland’s democratic system. Hence this research aims to provide an overview of the state of deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland as a stimulus to dialogue and action by all stakeholders with an interest in working together to bring about meaningful change. 

This report attempts to analyse the political culture of Northern Ireland through the lens of deliberative democracy. In the literature review that follows we explore deliberative democracy as a field of study, looking at the competing schools of theory and practice, but before we differentiate between the internal varieties it may be helpful to begin with the following simple, minimal definition of the term as it is generally understood—and which we apply, for the first time, to Northern Ireland:

Deliberative democracy differs from traditional models of democracy in that it foregrounds discussion between citizens and their representatives at all levels, seeking better outcomes through mutual exchange, rather than mere aggregation of voter preferences and negotiation between interest groups.

We could not have picked a more appropriate time to conduct the research. This was a four-month project, which was begun in November 2016 and concluded in February 2017. In that period two developments underscored its relevance. The first was the political crisis which began in November with the controversy at Stormont over a renewable-heating scheme, and which resulted in the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 16 January 2017. This was the fifth time the assembly had been suspended—for periods between 24 hours and four and a half years—since full powers were devolved in 1999. Against this background, the latest suspension cannot be seen as an aberration: rather, it reinforces the sense that Northern Ireland does not ‘do democracy’ very well.

The other development concerned the debate over how the vote on the European Union referendum was to be interpreted. On 23 June 2016 a majority across the UK voted to leave the EU, but most in Northern Ireland and Scotland (55.8 per cent and 62 per cent respectively) voted to remain. The prime minister, Theresa May, signalled her intention to use the royal prerogative to begin the process of withdrawal. This was contested in a citizen campaigner’s case based on the defence of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. A High Court decision on 3 December in favour of the challenger provoked fury in the Leave camp: the Daily Mail featured pictures of the three judges under the banner headline ’Enemies of the people’, claiming they had ‘declared war on democracy’. The ruling went to the heart of how the unwritten UK constitution is to be understood—favouring the deliberative processes of parliamentary debate over the aggregating power of a referendum. On 24 January 2017, the Supreme Court endorsed the argument about the sovereignty of Westminster, while simultaneously rejecting adjoined claims from Northern Ireland and Scotland, based on the intertwining of the devolution settlement and EU membership, that a UK exit from the EU depended on their consent.

These seismic events prompted debate about how democracy is to be understood—and whether, specifically, it is possible for it ever to be practised in Northern Ireland. Yet while they may lend our study a particular topicality, the underlying problems have deeper roots and it is these which the Building Change Trust wished to see explored when it commissioned this research.

Background to the project

The Building Change Trust, which commissioned this research report, seeks to develop creative space for civic thinking. To date the trust has invested in three parallel initiatives: a civic activism programme, the Northern Ireland Open Government Network, and research into the independence of the voluntary sector (Ketola and Hughes, 2016). Before the completion of its mandate at the end of 2018 the trust wishes to nurture the civic role of the sector and to shape that contribution within an expanded vision of democracy in Northern Ireland. This means going beyond narrow understandings of democracy as an electoral process, and working to develop a more participative or deliberative model of democracy, one which will broaden the range of people involved in decision-making and the modes of access to the decision-making process.

Initiatives supported by the civic activism programme include Fact Check NI, set up in 2016 by the Northern Ireland Foundation to promote a collaborative and bottom-up approach to political debate, working with members of the voluntary, community and social-enterprise sector, community workers, media editors and journalists, politicians and the public. The aim is ‘to influence public policy in regards to the community and voluntary sector, keep politicians right in terms of both their promises and their rhetoric, and also influence the general public by providing access to non-biased, un-opinionated facts.’ The trust also supported the Integrated Education Fund to trial a deliberative-polling experiment in the Kilkeel area to increase the engagement of local people in educational planning. In the Causeway Coast and Glens Council area it supported a consortium led by Corrymeela to engage citizens—using a creative mix of street theatre, physical mapping and pop-up cafes—in a dialogue about their newly created council area and their priorities and concerns in relation to community planning. The results were shared with council officials and elected representatives through a piece of participatory theatre including residents as actors.

This research will be important in setting a benchmark for future work. Hitherto, there has been no study which provides a helicopter view of the interplay between politics and the broader society, and no audit of citizen engagement. For the voluntary sector to find its civic voice the democratic spaces must first be identified, along with the blockages and impediments. Given the radical nature of the exercise the research project had to follow an innovative design, and move beyond the customary focus of governmental processes to assess the quality of democracy in the public space and the openness and access enjoyed by the citizens of Northern Ireland.

Almost two decades on from the Belfast agreement, embedded public scepticism about the performance of the post-agreement institutions and the say offered by them to citizens of the region has been evidenced by time-series survey data (Wilson, 2016: 148-49). This disillusionment found a lightning rod during the preparation of this report in a new power-sharing crisis at Stormont over the failure of the administration to cap expenditure on a project to encourage biomass heating—encapsulated by a session of the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 2016 in which only the largest party drawn from the Protestant community participated, with matters gradually spiralling downwards until the deputy first minister resigned the following month, precipitating the associated departure from office of the first minister. As will be seen, the theory of deliberative democracy conceives democracy as the exchange of reasoned argument in a pluralist society, with associated changes of individual opinion. This casts a sharp spotlight on the degree to which Northern Ireland is, or is not yet, moving beyond sectarian antagonism between taken-for-granted communalist perspectives.


Research goals and methodology

applying the model to NI

How can we assess deliberative democracy in practice? To date there has been no empirically-based experiment in the collection of data in such a way as to allow an assessment to be made of any particular society. The first stage has to be the creation of an indicator framework. The Building Change Trust is particularly interested in the model developed by the non-governmental organisation Involve. Created ten years ago, Involve is the UK’s leading authority on citizen engagement and public participation. Its director, Simon Burall, has developed a ‘deliberative systems framework’ to allow for an understanding of how well deliberative democracy principles are embedded in particular political cultures: rather than focusing exclusively on the extent to which individuals and communities are represented within institutions, the Involve model (Burrall, 2015) puts the emphasis on the range of views present and how they interact. This model identifies seven components of a democratic system, describing and analysing the condition of each in turn. It is the model which we have applied to Northern Ireland and we will go on in Section B to describe the seven components in more detail, but with regard to research goals and methodology it must be admitted that it has presented particular challenges.

Deliberative democracy is complex by its nature, but it is even more complex to conduct an empirical measure of it in a real-life situation, particularly when a proper study must be attentive to its absence as well as its manifestations. To capture the elusive nature of participation the research methodology had to go beyond traditional quantitative data analysis, to employ qualitative methods to provide a rounded view of the scope for fully participative democracy in Northern Ireland. Accordingly our approach has drawn on different research methods to create a kaleidoscopic picture of governance and citizen participation in Northern Ireland. Giving that practical expression means first of all recognising that quantitative data analysis can only yield a partial view, and that in keeping with the nature of the subject the research itself had to be discursive. Therefore, while desk research was the sine qua non of each constituent of the work, the real meaning-making element is drawn from dialogue and discussion—in keeping with the spirit of deliberation. We therefore utilised the following methodological combination:

  • 25 one-to-one interviews, with interviewees’ concerns and/or expertise dovetailing with one of the seven components of the Involve framework;
  • seven discussion groups, with participants engaged in specific social domains, ranging from the arts to the workplace; and
  • a round-table discussion, to which all interlocutors were invited, to consider the draft report collectively.

To maximise frankness, all those who took part were told that their remarks would be non-attributable.

The creation of a proper indicator framework was key to the work of the project. It had to be sufficiently comprehensive to capture all relevant data, and at the same time sufficiently parsimonious to allow for a compact report. The version we developed, which structures the empirical bulk of this report, was endorsed at the outset by a project advisory group. We were greatly assisted by this group—drawn from academia, public administration, the media and the NGO world, assisted by trust staff and Simon Burall. Prof John Dryzek, a global leader in the field of deliberative democracy influential in the Involve framework, kindly agreed to offer expert reflection. The paper, of course, is however the responsibility of the authors alone.

This report is structured as follows. The next section reviews the literature on deliberative democracy and sets it in an international and historical context. Contrary to a somewhat schematic representation of successive ‘generations’ of work in this arena, we show how the theory has evolved in a dialectical relationship with criticism and alongside empirical trialling. We complete that discussion with the notion of deliberative ‘systems’ (or ‘networks’, as we prefer) which has emerged, partly by way of criticism of the micro-political focus of ‘mini-public’ trials. This then leads us into our empirical application of the Involve framework to assess objectively the deliberative-democratic adequacy of Northern Ireland. Using the methodological combination outlined above, we present our data in the substantial section B, with a summation at the end of each sub-section. We distil our findings and conclude with the implications for policy, practice and further research.

Next Section: Research and Theory